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Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets

The Sonnets are Shakespeare's most popular works, and a few of them, such as Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer's day), Sonnet 116 (Let me not to the marriage of true minds), and Sonnet 73 (That time of year thou mayst in me behold), have become the most widely-read poems in all of English literature.
Composition Date of the Sonnets

Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets, likely composed over an extended period from 1592 to 1598, the year in which Francis Meres referred to Shakespeare's "sugred sonnets":
The witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare, witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets among his private friends, &c. (Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury)
In 1609 Thomas Thorpe published Shakespeare's sonnets, no doubt without the author's permission, in quarto format, along with Shakespeare's long poem, The Passionate Pilgrim. The sonnets were dedicated to a W. H., whose identity remains a mystery, although William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, is frequently suggested because Shakespeare's First Folio (1623) was also dedicated to him.

Narrative of the Sonnets

The majority of the sonnets (1-126) are addressed to a young man, with whom the poet has an intense romantic relationship. The poet spends the first seventeen sonnets trying to convince the young man to marry and have children; beautiful children that will look just like their father, ensuring his immortality. Many of the remaining sonnets in the young man sequence focus on the power of poetry and pure love to defeat death and "all oblivious enmity" (55.9).

The final sonnets (127-154) are addressed to a promiscuous and scheming woman known to modern readers as the dark lady. Both the poet and his young man have become obsessed with the raven-haired temptress in these sonnets, and the poet's whole being is at odds with his insatiable "sickly appetite" (147.4). The tone is distressing, with language of sensual feasting, uncontrollable urges, and sinful consumption.

  • For a closer look at the negative aspects of the poet's relationship with the young man and his mistress, please see Sonnet 75 and Sonnet 147.

  • For a celebration of the love between the young man and the poet, see Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 29.

  • For the poet's views on the mortality of the young man, see Sonnet 73.

  • For the poet’s description of his mistress, see Sonnet 130.
The question remains whether the poet is expressing Shakespeare's personal feelings. Since we know next to nothing about Shakespeare's personal life, we have little reason or right not to read the collected sonnets as a work of fiction, just as we would read his plays or long poems.


How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Shakespeare's Sonnets. Shakespeare Online. 30 Aug. 2000. < >.

Further Reading
Berryman, John. Berryman's Shakespeare. Ed. John Haffenden. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Hubler, Edward. The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets. New York: Hill and Wang, 1962.
Landry, Hilton. Interpretations in Shakespeare's sonnets. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

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Sonnet Notes ... Sonnet 145 is unusual in that, unlike any of Shakespeare's other sonnets, it is written in tetrameters. Some believe that Shakespeare is not the true author of this poem because of its anomalous rhythm, and for more serious reasons. In his comprehensive edition of the play, Raymond MacDonald Alden has compiled a selection of criticism from noted scholars. Dowden calls the sonnet "ill-managed"; Wyndham says it has "an unpleasing assonance between the rhyme-sounds of the first quatrain"; and Acheson concludes that Shakespeare "certainly did not write [this sonnet], nor did anyone to whom the title of poet might be applied: it is possibly a flight of Southampton's own muse." Read on...


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